Photo by Stephanie Keith

Now What? An Immigration Attorney Talks Trump’s Executive Order

‘This is the most difficult point in my career’

Thousands of protesters filled airport departure gates this past weekend demanding an end to President Trump’s draconian new immigration policies. Carrying signs with messages like “It does not say R.S.V.P. on the Statue of Liberty” and “Ban Spray Tans, Not Muslims,” the crowds demanded the release of all those detained by Customs and Border Patrol and a reversal of Trump’s ban on refugees.

But absent from much of the outcry has been a recognition of Trump’s threats towards undocumented immigrants already living in our country, including his efforts to withhold money from the sanctuary cities that have pledged to protect their undocumented populations and his broadened definition of deportable offenses. Under the executive order, “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” anyone who has “committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense” can be caught up in border control’s dragnet, whether or not they’ve been charged with a crime. In the same order, Trump also signaled he will go after anyone who has used a false social security number to obtain a job as well as anyone who has crossed the border illegally.

The xenophobic language in the order also stokes nativist fears of undocumented people, calling them “a threat to national security and public safety.” (For the record, you’re more likely to be robbed by a U.S.-born citizen.)

For Miguel Mexicano, directing attorney at Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, Trump’s orders strike a particularly harsh blow. Mexicano counsels immigrants seeking refuge in the U.S. — some of whom, he says, would be killed if they were sent back to their home countries. We talked about what he anticipates will happen to undocumented people living in Trump’s America.

What are you hearing from refugees who’ve learned they won’t have an opportunity to immigrate to the U.S.? What do you say to them?
I feel like apologizing to them as a proud American who wants to be part of a country that’s inclusive and open-minded and has a sense of ethics not just at home but abroad. I will have to tell them to try to find an alternate refuge — maybe Canada — or see if they can find another place that can accept them now.

Meanwhile, the American people have to decide if they are okay supporting policies that will result in the deaths of thousands of innocent people from all over the world. That’s what [his executive order halting the resettlement of refugees] means. There’s a lot of rhetoric and political speeches but what it translates to is real deaths to thousands of innocent men, women and children who are trying to escape horrible circumstances people in the United States couldn’t even imagine.

Have you ever felt this way before—like you can’t do your job?
This is the most difficult point in my career because we have a president who is enforcing policies that haven’t been seen since I’ve been alive — maybe not since the Japanese internment camps.

Just this morning, I received word that the Department of Homeland Security will not be administratively closing any more cases. Up until today, in certain deportation cases that were considered low-priority — where immigrants had no criminal history and maybe had been in the U.S. for a long time — Homeland Security was allowing the cases to be closed. The person then would not have legal status but could remain here without fear of deportation. Now, instead of focusing on the people who deserve to be removed from the country, they’re making everyone a priority.

It’s easy to blame the immigrant population because they don’t speak the language and they’re not empowered. To me, it’s obvious that this is political scapegoating. It’s a way of making people look the other way while they pick our pockets.

What do you think of how protesters responded over the weekend?
I’ve seen Fox News and conservative sites like the National Review call this movement “hysteria.” What we are witnessing is not hysteria, but rather outrage from people like me. This country was founded on principles of having the freedom to follow one’s beliefs free from oppression or persecution. I assure you that immigration lawyers like me will continue to fill airport lobbies until these executive orders are struck down by the judiciary — and by the court of public opinion — as the unconstitutional and un-American policies that they are.

Trump has also said that the Secretary of Homeland Security will be publishing a weekly list of crimes committed by immigrants, and of the cities that refused to turn them in for deportation. The document doesn’t say whether the list would single out only undocumented immigrants, or all immigrants. What do you make of this?
It’s a tactic that is meant to intimidate and confuse the public. It’s kind of like using an anecdote to prove a point or using an exception to prove the norm. In any population, there’s going to be criminals but you can’t use that to paint the whole population with one brush.

It has echoes of Breitbart’s constantly updated section on “Black Crime,” which the publication began as a response to Black Lives Matter.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the same tactic is being used.

Democratic Senate Leader Kevin De Léon is at the forefront of legislation that would make it harder for the feds to collaborate with local authorities in deportations and Governor Brown also made a very forceful speech about protecting the values of Californians by resisting Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda. Do you feel like you’re living in a state that understands what we’re up against?
There’s talk and then there’s action. Our local and state government is moving forward with legislation for immigrants who are already here. I think just the fact that they are willing to stand up is a move in the right direction. It’s our jobs, as immigrant advocates, to push them further and to not back down.

Another frightening aspects of the executive order is this deputizing of state and local governments to perform immigration enforcement. That’s what he’s asking the states and local governments to do: to use their resources to enforce his immigration policies. And if you don’t do this, he’s threatening to take away funding. But it’s unconstitutional to commandeer state and local governments under the 10th Amendment.

Can you imagine if he were able to enforce this? The images I get are dystopian. If that happens, if local and state officials are deputized as ICE officials, it would have a chilling effect on the entire immigrant populace. They would not feel comfortable reporting any kind of crime — whether domestic violence or even murder. If your local police officer is equivalent to an ICE officer in your mind, it will have a huge effect on innocent immigrants who are being victimized by criminals and it’ll make the work of police officers much harder.

And what is to stop anyone who discriminates against immigrants from violating the law? It’s a frightening thought, but how do we then document constitutional violations and who do we report them to? We have to think of the worst-case scenarios at this point. One of them is a world where constitutional protections don’t apply to immigrants.

What do you say to people who want to help?
Call your Senators and your Representatives and let them know that Trump’s executive orders cannot stand. Donate your time and money to national organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union or the National Immigration Law Center, as well as my organization, which helps hundreds of refugees and immigrants on a weekly basis. Finally, I suggest resisting in the hearts and minds of your network. Inform your friends and loved ones that you stand in opposition of these executive orders. Movements are started at the grassroots level. Don’t be afraid to be politically active and take a stand.

What do you do to relax?
I haven’t figured that out yet, exactly. I have a two-month-old son — he was born on Election Day. It was the best day of my life and also one of my worst. Holding him in my hands gives me hope.